What we know about the Pac-10

By Anthony Gimino

For much of the past decade, the Pac-10’s Big Three has been U-S-C.

But not last year. Not this year. Probably not for the near future.

The conference season begins to heat up this week with three games, and even as teams take the first steps of the race, there is enough accumulated evidence to eliminate a supposed contender (Washington), be dubious of another (USC) and be curious about a long shot (Arizona State).

In a league in which there was little consensus of opinion in the preseason, let’s make the jump from what we thought we knew to what we think we know. The new list of teams to beat:

1. Oregon
2A. Arizona
2B. Stanford

Oregon is the nation’s most electrifying team. The Ducks lead the country in scoring offense (63.0 points per game) and scoring defense (4.33). Quibble if you must about their strength of schedule, but give them a stadium-full of style points.

“I don’t think I have seen a PlayStation (game) like that,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said of Oregon’s offensive numbers. “Those guys are special, and they have been for three years.”

What makes Oregon, Arizona and Stanford the Big Three of the Pac-10 is not that their strengths have been strengths, but that they have strengthened their weaknesses. Or at least their supposed weaknesses.

Let’s take stock:

Oregon: Quarterback play. Too much was made about losing Jeremiah Masoli. The Ducks had all spring and fall to evaluate Darron Thomas and Nate Costa. Coach Chip Kelly chose wisely with Thomas, an athletic sophomore who is making good decisions, not turning the ball over at an alarming rate and is generally just getting out of the way of lightning-quick backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

“So far, I think Darron Thomas has been tremendous,” Kelly said.

“He’s ahead of where Jeremiah Masoli was after three games, I’ll tell you that. Darron is way ahead of where Jeremiah was after three games. Does that mean he’ll be ahead of Jeremiah down the road? I don’t know.”
Arizona: Linebacker and defensive tackle. Coach Mike Stoops said his biggest relief has been the play of his three new starting linebackers — junior college transfers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo and sophomore Jake Fischer. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Justin Washington has been a revelation, an active inside player who leads the Pac-10 with four sacks.

Stanford: Replacing Toby Gerhart. He was bullishly brilliant last season, barely losing the Heisman to Alabama’s Mark Ingram, but the Cardinal haven’t lost their blue-collar approach just because he’s gone. Coach Jim Harbaugh won’t allow that, and he has the kind of offensive line to punish defenses. Stanford is plowing forward for 242.3 rushing yards per game.

And besides, Arizona, with Nick Foles, and Stanford, with Andrew Luck, have the two best quarterbacks in the league.

So circle the dates:

— Stanford at Oregon (Oct. 2)
— Arizona at Stanford (Nov. 2)
— Arizona at Oregon (Nov. 26)

No USC? No, no USC.

The Trojans have tip-toed into the season, starting 3-0. They have played well on offense. They have played well on defense. Just not at the same time. They have shown none of the verve the Ducks have. USC, despite modest competition, ranks no better than 34th in any of the NCAA’s eight major statistical categories. Previous USC teams would have used the early competition as a chew toy.

Ineligible for the postseason, adjusting to coach Lane Kiffin, learning new schemes and trying to skate by without much depth … the Trojans won’t have the horses to go all the way.

Preseason opinion on Washington: The X-factor. The thinking went something like this: Jake Locker is the most valuable commodity in college football — an experienced, talented, fifth-year senior quarterback — and teams often make a big jump in a head coach’s second season.

New opinion on the Huskies: Pretenders, and Locker is never, never, never going to turn into the Tim Tebow of the West.

Oregon State, which plays at Boise State this week, can’t be counted out. The Beavers usually spend most of September chugging uphill and then flattening teams as they roll downhill the rest of the way. But where are the playmakers on defense? And can first-year starting quarterback sophomore Ryan Katz really be trusted?

That goes double for Cal senior quarterback Kevin Riley.

That goes triple for UCLA sophomore Kevin Prince, who is getting healthier and has room to grow. But, through three games, his passing efficiency rating of 74.21 is improbably lower than the completion percentage of Arizona’s Nick Foles (78.6).

New X-factor: Arizona State. Here’s another team that has strengthened its weakness.

If the Sun Devils wanted to use the nonconference season to get comfortable with their quarterback, mission accomplished. Michigan transfer Steven Threet is confident and in control of ASU’s new no-huddle spread. A little improvement on offense will go a long way for ASU, which should have won at No. 11 Wisconsin last week and still has one of the league’s most dangerous defenses.

At least one thing hasn’t changed: Washington State is (sigh) still Washington State.

Oregon has the best team, so quick and dangerous, a national title threat. Stanford can earn more respect this week at Notre Dame. Arizona did that last week by beating No. 9 Iowa.

Picking the Pac-10 in the preseason was a perilous assignment, but we’ll stick with this Big Three.

For now.

“I think every game is going to be a Super Bowl,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said of playing in the Pac-10. “In our league, there are going to be challenges every week. It’s going to be daunting.”